The Abandonment of Morality

Consciousness Raising or Ethical Training?
Why Ethics Courses Aren’t Teaching Ethics

BreakPoint with Charles Colson

April 2, 2004

At a time when our society has been rocked by a series of business and financial scandals, what’s the most effective way to teach ethics at an Ivy League business school?

One Columbia University professor believes that the answer is to provide “a forum for self-exploration.” His students discuss their personal problems in class, study Hindu philosophy, form social networks, and learn that although “there are terrible jerks” in the business world, “there is absolutely no need for you to give them power over your happiness.” According to the New York Times, their professor inspires them with sayings like “When the flower blossoms, the bee will come,” and “Good thing, bad thing, who knows?”

I’m sorry to say I’m not making this up. As the Times recently reported, Dr. Srikumar S. Rao has been teaching this course, “Creativity and Personal Mastery,” for five years now. Some of his students told the Times that the course has helped them feel “happy” and “fulfilled,” provided “direction,” and “raised [their] consciousness.” But none of them mentioned whether it had done anything to help them develop their ethical sense.

Rao sums up the course very well when he writes in his syllabus: “The ONLY reason this course works is because it is about YOU. What do YOU want to create? What kind of life do YOU want to lead? What do happiness and success mean to YOU?” Basically, the idea is to find within your own consciousness the answers that make you comfortable. But isn’t that exactly what Jeffrey Skillings, Martha Stewart, Bernie Ebbers, and the rest of the rogues’ gallery have done? They found their inner consciousness and robbed their stockholders blind.

This story struck a raw nerve with me. For well over a decade, I’ve been talking about why we need ethics courses in business schools—and why it’s impossible to teach them in a relativistic environment. I first lectured on this at Harvard Business School in 1991, and I was stunned that nobody challenged my assertions. The students had no understanding of classical moral philosophy—they were learning pure pragmatism. And after that, Harvard discontinued its ethics course for a while.

The basic problem is that the secular university today is committed to philosophical relativism and pragmatism. I’ve read the curricula from various business schools, and I’ve seen the same pattern over and over: Since there is no absolute truth, no clear right and wrong, you do whatever works best. But ethics, by definition, rests not on what is but on what ought to be, on clear moral standards and principles. Take them away, and you’re left with “feel-good” philosophies and Eastern mysticism, providing nothing in the way of moral guidance.

What’s happening at Columbia is what happens when you abandon the commitment to moral truth. Essentially, Rao is teaching religion, but it’s not a religion that can help you solve the ethical problems. In fact, it’s a religion that’s very dangerous for impressionable students—a religion built on self-love and that has nothing to do with the Creator and His transcendent moral law. If that’s the best we can do in ethics, you can expect more Enrons and WorldComs to come.

We Christians need to keep pressing this point home, because it exposes the utter bankruptcy of today’s secular culture.

For further reading and information:

Amy Wu, “ Emotional Striptease, and Other Paths to Ethics ,” New York Times, 7 March 2004 . (Archived article; costs $2.95 to retrieve.)

Srikumar S. Rao, course outline for “Creativity and Personal Mastery,” Columbia University, 2003. ( Adobe Acrobat Reader required.)

Charles Colson, “ A Time to Learn about Ethics ,” recording of a lecture delivered at Harvard Business School.

“Christians in the Marketplace,” a Christian Mind in the New Millennium III conference, took place April 4-6, 2003 , at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort and Conference Center in Colorado Springs , CO. At this BreakPoint worldview conference, speakers—including Charles Colson, Mark Earley, Michael Novak, and others—discussed the role of Christian worldview in today’s business sector and marketplace, how businesses should apply ethical standards to their practices, and how our work should be viewed as a calling, an opportunity to serve God in our business. ( Audiocassette and CD sets are available.)

Michael Novak, “ The Creative, Ethical Vocation of Business ,” Capitol Hill Lecture, 4 March 2004.

Kelley Reep, “ It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose ,” BreakPoint Online, 3 June 2003.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030717, “ Taking Care of Business: Virtue in the Boardroom.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030203, “ Same Old, Same Old: The Demise of Business Ethics.”

Scott Rae, “ Character, Conscience, and Business ,” BreakPoint WorldView, October 2002. Dr. Rae’s 2004 Capitol Hill Lecture , “Swindles, Lies, and a Healthy Economy,” will soon be available on CD.

T. M. Moore, “ A Faculty of Fools ,” BreakPoint WorldView, October 2002.

Scott Rae, Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics (Zondervan, 1996).

Michael Novak, Business as a Calling (Free Press, 1996).

Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House, 2003).

Whereas Colson’s appeal is for more Christian dominance, which in itself has pitholes in which to fall, I do agree that the lack of ethical foundations lead us into deep problems. The strength and weakness of Globalism is that it makes us all interdependant, but doesn’t provide equal opportunities. It could work out for everybody - but I doubt it.

The more people are required to interact with each other, the more they need to know about the values of their opposites. They need to know who they are and what they can be expected to do. In a society where everybody is a target and can be ripped off at will, we would all tend to pull back and secure our assets. That is what we essentially have if relativism and pragmatics rule the financial environment - and it won’t work.

I know there are calls to do away with ethics (mostly from naiv and immature partakers) but the more we become interdependant, the more ethics become essential.


Charles Colson has made a pragmatic argument for the teaching of his religion. His (laudable) goal is that our actions should flow from a developed sense of ethics. His argument fails, however, with his assumption that only one path - his path - could lead to this desired end. In fact, there are “many roads to Mecca.”

Has Mr. Colson has forgotten that Christianity is a prime example of Eastern mysticism? Christianity was a foreign religion that spread to Europe from the Mid-East. Its message of a God that gives us life after death is typical of Eastern mythologies.

Colson complains about “feel-good,” and yet Christianity is perhaps the ultimate example of “feel-good” mythology. It tells us that we can survive our death, that the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished. It tells us that to suffer is noble and that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” This “feel-good” message is precisely why Christianity has been such a successful myth. Would you rather believe in a myth that makes you feel rotten?

Ah, if only we could go back to the “good old days” when Christianity was the most powerful force in the Western world, and a central part in the life of every Western man…If only we could go back to those non-secular days of witch-burning, nose-slitting, whipping, burning at-the-stake, breaking of bones…back to the days of the Inquisition and the German Thirty-Year War…back to the plague years when “dirty Jews” were lynched on the street for having spread disease among “good Christians”…back to the days when Crusaders - men wearing the cross of Jesus on their chest - put the entire populations of Muslim cities to the sword. :astonished:

At the same time, I agree with Colson that university education has become too narrow-minded; too work oriented. In its original conception, a university educated a man for life, not merely for a specific task. We expect truck-driving schools to teach us how to drive trucks, but we ought to expect more from a university than merely “how to do,” more important is the question “how to be.”

I also agree with Colson’s complaint against the culture where personal values are equated with bigotry. Making judgments and having beliefs doesn’t make you a bigot, it’s part of what makes you civilized. I emphatically disagree with Colson’s wish to return to a time prior to the Enlightenment when Christianity was rammed down our throats. Even so, I’d rather contend with a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim who lives in accordance with their values, than the man-like creature who has no values and couldn’t care less about it.

Of all the horrible stories to come out of Africa in the recent years, the most chilling, perhaps, is one we’re only now hearing about of the so-called child-soldiers. The common people of Africa always have had a good reason to be afraid of soldiers. When they heard that the army was near they’d often gather up their possessions and take to the road. But when they heard that child-soldiers were coming they wouldn’t bother gathering their possessions; they’d just run like hell in the opposite direction. A child with a machine-gun is roughly as compassionate as a monkey with a hand-grenade. How does one appeal for mercy to a being who hasn’t yet developed a sense of compassion? How do you appeal to a nonexistent sense of common humanity? Joseph Conrad’s remark that, “All a man can betray is his own conscience,” presupposes that there’s a conscience present to be betrayed. Having bad values is bad enough, but having no values is truly awful.


the fact of the matter is “normative science” doesn’t make money for anyone but those who support the status quo. and “normative science” is that type of study that actually takes what “ought to be” into question, whereas the only type of study that pays or gets academics the grants they need for tenure has to be “empirical” and framed in pragmatic relativity, cause’ its supposed to make things look more scientific if they are purely empirical.

that being said, study that entails ethical considerations (normative science), where one can actually learn to evaluate right and wrong without being entirely pragmatic or relativistic, are taught at fine arts orientated institutions all across the land, but these type institutions are small and lack the support of giant corporate funding (and influence) that larger institutions recieve,… i’m sorry that it has to be schools like Columbia and Harvard that supply the future “leaders” of important organizations in the world…but if you want to discover the finest teachers available you have to dig for them at smaller institutions where it’s about scholars doing what they want rather than doing it for the money…

these are very cynical times we live in… but anyway, ethics don’t pay unless there is a politico-economic agenda behind them. for example, it irks the shit out of me everytime i see a mainstream conservative argument based on some type of Kantian appeal when anybody with a half-ass backround in philosophy should know that Kant is dead and outdated…

but i have to point out that the Christian tatic of pointing out the flaws of mondernday nihilistic “secularism” doesn’t give them any credence…it’s just an either/or falacy

Hi illocutionary,

Thanks for the post in which you wrote:

Where Colson says “ethics,” we obviously need to substitute the words “Christian ethics.” But when you say “ethics,” ought we to substitute the words “normative science”? Given that you twice used quotes around the words “normative science,” I’m not entirely sure of your intentions.

Most of the ethical theories that philosophers debate fall under the category of “normative ethics,” ethics proper, can be thought of as a “science” only in the widest possible sense of the word (as in an organized discipline, or what the Germans call Wissenshaft). And yes, I realize that pragmatists such as Pierce thought otherwise, but unless someone has discovered how to derive “ought” from “is” while I wasn’t looking, the application of the scientific method to ethical questions will remain a futile activity.

Normative science has to do with describing standards or sets of rules for a given activity, but such rule making will always be subsumed under the wider category of philosophical ethics. No matter if we’re saying how people tend to behave (from a psychological or sociological perspective), or how people ought to behave, we’ll never escape having to ask ourselves “why?”. If we someday manage to explain human behavior in terms of sociobiology or cognitive science; if we learn what triggers such and such behavior; then we’re still left asking whether or not we should pull that trigger. That is, if we figure out how to work the puppet strings that control behavior, then we’re still left having to decide how we ought to manipulate the strings.

If you really do give credence to the teaching of normative science over ethics proper, I wonder why you’d be at such odds with Kant? His deontological ethics fit normative ethics like the proverbial hand-in-a-glove. If ethical behavior is fundamentally a matter of doing one’s duty, then we obviously need to come up with a list of “dos and donts,” which is just the sort of thing normative science cranks-out.

Lastly, I didn’t mean to imply that modern day university departments of philosophy are lacking. You mentioned both Columbia and Harvard, both of which have traditionally maintained programs of stellar quality. Robert Nozick taught at Harvard until his recent death, Thomas Nagel is at New York, etc. My criticism was more along the lines of C.P. Snow’s The Two Culture’s, inasmuch as I’d like scientists and engineers to study more art and philosophy, just as artists and philosophers need to study more science and engineering. There’s quite a bit we can teach each other if we’d only loosen the artificial parameters that delimit our field of study. Of course, I would say that, given my love of engineering and philosophy. :wink: